Berlin’s refugee trains

Every morning, at around 9 o’clock, a train carrying hundreds of refugees arrives at Berlin’s Schönefeld airport.

The train comes from Freilassing, a Bavarian town on the border with Austria.

As soon as it pulls in, the passengers are taken to an abandoned station room, where they are met by three groups of people: German soldiers; representatives of Lageso (the body in charge of registering new arrivals) and volunteers.

I made my way there yesterday morning. Bleary-eyed and not knowing what to expect, I was grateful to have a friend who could show me around.

“Those are the bathrooms,” he said, pointing to a row of portaloos outside the building. Next, he showed me the storage area. Piled into cardboard boxes were legions of teddy bears, nappies, sanitary towels and some sad-looking chocolate Santa Clauses. A huge area had been dedicated to clothing but as I was to find out later, there’s little use having a choice of a dozen women’s sweaters when what you desperately need is a pair of medium trousers for a man.

We set up a play area for the children – arranging a welcoming party of soft toys, colouring pencils and racing cars. Beside us, women were laying out blankets and baby changing facilities. On the other side of the room, soldiers and volunteers were spreading cream cheese on wraps and unloading crates of fruit.


Soldiers and volunteers setting up crates of fruit and sandwiches early in the morning.

This was to be the refugees’ first impression of Berlin.

A short while later, the news came (by whatsapp) that the train was late. A few more minutes of calm.

And then they came.

Men, women, children, babies – all haggard looking. One of my first impressions was of a little girl with a horrifying, ominous cough.

I was on sandwich duty. It was non-stop. Nearly everyone wanted one. Many parents – with a child in one arm, and a plastic bag containing their few belongings in another, had trouble picking up the food.

Some people looked me in the eye. One or two children even smiled. But many others simply looked away. I imagine they’ve seen enough already.

When everyone who wanted one had got a sandwich, I made my way back to the kids’ corner. The toys had disappeared. There were people rummaging in boxes.

Some of the children hadn’t been quick enough. One little boy came to me and, gesturing as if he already had one, said, hopefully, “yoyo?” He’d probably seen someone else with one. I said I’d do my best. I think he understood what I meant.

I raced back to the storage room and scanned the boxes as fast as I could. Luck was on my side. I found an in-tact yoyo. The little boy took it and smiled. A small triumph.

Some of the kids were blowing bubbles. One father kept demanding I give his daughter the large re-fill container of soapy water. He was relentless in this pursuit – constantly approaching me while I was busy caring for others. His daughter too was adamant in her refusal of the standard sized bubble set the other kids had got. It was bizarre rather than anything else.  Who knows what kind of experiences trigger these minor absurdities?

With most people, communicating involved gesturing. I did meet one man though, who – while desperately trying to access the airport wifi – told me in fluent English that he was from Damascus and was relieved to find that so many people in Germany could speak English. He asked me who I was and what I did. He said he was grateful. I told him he was welcome, in both senses.


Children’s play area

The final, mammoth task involved distributing clothing to those who needed it. I’d been advised to look at children’s feet in particular to see whether they needed shoes.

As soon as word spread that there was clothing to be had, the crowds began to come. Parents pointed at various parts of their children – tugging at their sweaters or trousers to indicate what they needed. I could supply many people but not all. I was glad to find underwear for a little boy and boots for an older girl. Some of the women wanted pullovers. A very polite teenage boy showed me his broken belt. Luckily, I found him a replacement.

But I could not find a pair of trousers to fit an average-sized man. We had some enormous pairs (probably donated by a triumphant German man who’d managed to shed some excess pounds or shops which couldn’t sell them). In the end the pair I apologetically produced for the man in question even managed to get a laugh.

After about an hour, the whole thing was over. The people were ushered onto buses which would take them to refugee shelters in Berlin and beyond.

Once there, like a million others already have, they will face the hurdles of German bureaucracy. The lucky ones will then have the opportunity – if you can call it that – of building a new life out of nothing.

In the meantime, the trains  will keep coming to Schönefeld.

Frau B and the elusive Christmas package

She picked up but the conversation lasted only a few seconds.

“Kätchen, can you call me back? I’m putting on my stockings.”

I gave her ten minutes.

“Okay, they’re up,” she said after just one ring. “But I’m in a right state.  Wait till I tell you.”

Frau B’s niece, Krista, had sent her a package for Christmas. Unfortunately, there’d been no one at reception to receive it, so it ended up being sent back to Hamburg. In the meantime, Krista developed thrombosis in her leg and had to be hospitalised. The package landed with a neighbour, who had no choice but to pop it right back in the post in the hope that this time, it might reach its destination.

The plight of this package had been plaguing Frau B for weeks. Now, with the first week of January drawing to a close, it had finally arrived.

But Frau B did not see a cause for celebration.

Choco stack

When it comes to Ritter Sport, I think I can handle it.

“I’m ready to cry,” she said. “It’s this wretched plastic wrapping. I’ve been trying to remove it for hours.”

“Besides,” she continued. “I don’t know what Krista was thinking. There are 12 bars of Ritter Sport in here and countless packets of biscuits. Where does she expect me to put them? I’m hardly going to eat them all!”

“Well,” I said, taken aback at her agitation. “I know I can help you with the chocolate. And, as for the wrapping, I’d just leave it until I come on Sunday and then we can sort it out together.”

“I know she meant well,” said Frau B. “But it’s ridiculous. I can’t even get to the cupboard to put anything away.”

On the surface, Frau B might be accused of lacking in graciousness. But that would be to neglect the reality of what life it like for a 96-year-old.

Unlike many of her peers, Frau B has managed to maintain the strength of spirit required to express indignation. If that were to disappear, I would know the end is near.

The tirade against her well-meaning niece managed, briefly, to deflect attention away from one or all of the following:

Her swollen, knobbly hands and the arthritis that cripples them – preventing her from carrying out the simplest of tasks, like tearing open a sheet of cellophane wrapping.

The real prospect that her last remaining blood relative might die before her.

The difficulty of mustering up the energy to get from her armchair to the shelf.

The indignity of dependence.

Bearing all this in mind, I too, chose to deflect.

“Guess what LSB suggested,” I said.


“That we spend next New Year’s Eve with you.”

Frau B had rung in 2016 sitting alone in her room, dismayed that the nursing home hadn’t made an effort to mark the occasion. The disappointment was all the more real because last year, she’d had such a good time celebrating that she had to be escorted back to her room. The half bottle of wine she’d downed had left her giddy and unsteady on her Zimmerframe.

“I hope to goodness I’m not alive by then,” she said.

“Well if you are,” I said, “we’ll be sure to bring some champagne.”

She laughed.

“I don’t really like champagne. But I suppose you can bring me beer.”